Mazzulla’s Job Against Kentucky In 2010 Was To Be A Nag
Kentucky behemoth DeMarcus Cousins looked down at the rat terrier biting at his ankles and spit out, “What the @#$% do you think you’re doing?”
It was the first trip down court in the 2010 NCAA Tournament Regional finals, and the 6-foot-11, 270-pound Wildcat was already annoyed with Joe Mazzulla, West Virginia’s junior point guard who was generously listed at 6-foot-1 and 200 pounds.
UK came to the Carrier Dome in Syracuse with seven NCAA championships and 13 Final Four appearances to its credit. The Mountaineers had been to just one Final Four in program history, and that had come 51 years prior when Jerry West and Willie Akers were wearing the Blue & Gold.
But a trip to the 2010 Final Four was line when No. 2 Kentucky and No. 6 West Virginia clashed before a crowd of 22,497 in the cavernous dome.
On a UK squad filled with future NBAers like John Wall, Eric Bledsoe, Darius Miller and Huntington’s own Patrick Patterson, Cousins stood above the crowd. He was the biggest, baddest Cat not only in the Blue Grass State but in all of college basketball that season, his one and only at UK before going pro.
And against the Blue hulk, West Virginia threw the smallest player on the floor at him.
WVU head coach Bob Huggins, in his third season leading his alma mater, was a man-to-man defense proponent. But when he returned to Morgantown in 2007, he adopted the 1-3-1 his Mountaineer predecessor, John Beilein, had often used, and which many of Huggins’ veterans, like Muzzulla, Da’Sean Butler and Wellington Smith, knew well. Huggins was still a man-to-man man, but he used the 1-3-1 as a change of pace defense, particularly late in games when he wanted to slow WVU’s opponents down for a few possessions.
Rarely, though, did West Virginia use the 1-3-1 from the outset and for a bulk of the game. But on this big stage, with a trip to the Final Four in the balance, Huggins and the Mountaineers started out in the 1-3-1. And that meant WVU’s point guard, Mazzulla, was at the bottom of the zone, chasing from corner to corner and often having to battle bulky centers.
And they didn’t get much bulkier than Cousins.
“I always tell people I wasn’t the best of players, but I did what needed to be done,” Mazzulla explained. “In that game, my job was to be a constant nag to him. I just pulled on him and leaned on him and slid underneath him and got into his legs. None of that would be legal today. I probably would have fouled out in the first half. But back then, I could get away with it and take him out of his game and throw him off his rhythm.”
In a performance for the ages, the Mountaineers rained in shots from the outside and outmuscled the bigger Wildcats on the inside.
Muzzulla was the lead antagonist, hounding Cousins from the opening tap. The Big Cat did wind up with 15 points and eight rebounds, but he also turned the ball over five times, as Joe, with plenty of help from his Mountaineer friends, frustrated the Mobile, Ala., native.
“We had Da’Sean and Wellington and (Devin) Ebanks and K.J. (Kevin Jones) and all those guys who could make shots,” recalled Joe, who did eventually foul out but not until late in the contest. “So, while I was able to score some, my primary role was to do what we needed to win. And in that game, that was to constantly nag Cousins.”
Mazz’ countered Cousins with 17 points of his own and more importantly led West Virginia to a 73-66 victory and a ticket to the Final Four. Joe’s offensive production that day was even more amazing because he had played the whole season with a shoulder injury that had greatly effected his shooting. In fact, he hadn’t scored over eight points in a game or hit even one three-point shot all season … until Kentucky. He was one-of-two from beyond the arc and more than doubled his previous season high in terms of points.
WVU would eventually fall to Duke in the NCAA semifinals, but that upset of Kentucky forever cemented a place for Mazzulla and the 2010 Mountaineers in West Virginia lore.
“I’ve never watched the entire game,” admitted Mazzulla, doing his best Huggins’ impression to always look forward and never look back. “When I was an assistant at Glenville, I got the cut-ups of our 1-3-1 defense in that game, to see what we could use. But other than that, I’ve never seen it.
“When I became a coach, I wanted to put the player mentality behind me,” he continued. “I wanted to be a student of the game, so I didn’t want to get caught up in watching it as a player. That’s why I’ve never watched it.”
So after playing 145 games for the Mountaineers, which are the second most in school history behind only Butler’s 146, Mazzulla turned to coaching. After several seasons as an assistant at various spots, Joe got his first chance to be a head coach this season. He’s leading the Fairmont State Fighting Falcons, which is just 20 miles from his old stomping grounds at the WVU Coliseum.
A native of Rhode Island who is now married and has two children, Mazzulla took over a Fairmont State squad that reached the Division II national championship game last March. Jerrod Calhoun, who previously had served as an assistant coach at West Virginia, had built a powerful Falcon program in his six seasons at FSU. But Calhoun moved on to the Division I level last spring, accepting the head coaching job at Youngstown State.
The 29-year-old Mazzulla took over the reigns following Calhoun’s departure, but despite inheriting a team that lost many of its top players to graduation, including MEC player of the year Matt Bengaya, he still has Fairmont State going strong.
“Our guys have a good basketball IQ,” Mazzula said of this year’s FSU squad. “We can make adjustments on the fly, which takes a lot of basketball knowledge on their part.
“These guys have put a lot of trust in me, which isn’t always a given with a new head coach,” he added. “I was an assistant here in the past so the players knew me, but sometimes things change when you move one seat over.”
The Falcons are currently 14-5 and in third place in the MEC. They face a huge test Sunday at 5 p.m. when they entertain West Liberty, which is 18-0 and ranked No. 1 nationally in Division II.